New Methods of Selection
Primaries: The New Politics of Attrition
Is this the best way to choose presidential candidates? That is the question many political analysts are asking now that the primary season is over. Twenty years ago, John F. Kennedy needed only two big primary victories — Wisconsin and West Virginia — to persuade party leaders to support him for the 1960 Democratic nomination. But since then, the power of political parties has been diluted as the nominating system has changed to emphasize mass participation. While the change is primarily an outgrowth of extensive Democratic rules changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the widening of the delegate selection process has had an impact on Republicans as well, most notably in the proliferation of state primaries. In 1968 only 17 states held primaries; in 1980 there were primaries in 35 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
About three-fourths of the delegates to the 1980 nominating conventions were chosen in the state primaries. But, ironically, the proliferation of primaries has increased the importance of early delegate selection events such as the Iowa precinct caucuses, held this year on Jan. 21, five weeks before the traditionally important New Hampshire primary. A victory in Iowa can gain a candidate media attention and early momentum. Both George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 used strong showings in Iowa to propel their dark-horse candidacies to the Democratic nominations.
The attention given the early caucuses and primaries has lead candidates to enter the presidential campaign earlier than ever before. When Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois announced his candidacy in June 1979, he became not the first or second contender for the Republican nomination, but the seventh. Even well-known candidates who delayed their formal announcements felt compelled to form campaign committees in early 1979 to do necessary organizational and fund-raising work.